After some much needed post-Paris rest, I headed off to join the group for a tour of the London Library in St. James Square. The London Library, founded in 1841 by Thomas Carlyle, is the world's largest independent library and is paid for by its members. (The subscription cost is £395 per year and currently there are about 7,500 members, including organizations, universities, the media, and individual persons.) Carlyle had been frustrated that the British Library did not lend out items, so he started his own library so that people could borrow at their leisure. Famous past members include Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot.
The London Library is actually four buildings from different time periods stuck together. The Library is currently in redevelopment and is thus very exciting to walk through. Luckily, we were given a guided tour by Jane, the deputy librarian. One of the most interesting sections was the back stacks, which has steel frame floors and bookcases. The bookcases act as structural supports. It was a bit scary to walk over the floors. These stacks, along with others in the three other building sections, house over one million items. The collections consists solely of books and journals in the humanities, and over 8,000 books are added per year. The Library's policy is to retain all items except in the case of exact duplicates. With the redevelopment project the Library has been able to reunite some formerly divided collections, making things easier to find. This is especially helpful as the Library has its own classification scheme and does not apply call numbers. This scheme was begun in the 1890s and it splits the collections into subject and then into letter. For example, the arts would begin with A. The Library does have an online catalogue, but 42% of the collection is still be retrospectively catalogued.
At the end of the visit we went to see Stella in the preservation and stack management area. Although all of the London Library's materials are housed and and are available on site, about 3% of the collection is classified as rare books. Catalogue records state under what conditions each book may be borrowed or viewed. Before Stella came on board the rare books were housed in an unclean basement with no air. Since then Stella and her team have stabilized about 35,000 volumes. The London Library is lucky in that its buildings are warm and dry, meaning that mold cannot fester. As part of this session we were able a few rare books, one of which was a 1685 Shakespeare 4th Folio.
Along with the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the London Library was one of my favorite library visits so far. The Library staff was so accommodating and friendly and we received gift bags full of interesting literature. I really liked the idea of having a modern day subscription library. Members are thus able to have a lot of input in the running and collections of the Library, as they pay for the services.
Photo courtesy of the London Library.